COMMENT: On dissimulation —Munir Attaullah - Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Any person even vaguely familiar with how betting works, knows that bookmakers stand to profit when the favourite loses, and stand to lose when the favourite wins. In the semi-final in question, India were the heavy betting favourite 

The voices of reason, sanity, and sceptical common sense, are tiny atolls in the ocean of human irrationality. Why is that so?

In my youth I thought this was simply the result of ignorance, of either not knowing or not properly understanding the facts. I passionately believed then it was both possible to know the truth about most matters and that the truth, once clearly known, would conquer all. Was that not the great lesson of the intellectual revolution history knows as the European Enlightenment? Do we not all agree now that education is the master key to escape those dark mental dungeons of horror that are ignorance and prejudice?

It has taken a lifetime of bitter experience to rid me of such innocent optimism. Nor in my youth did I realise how fiendishly difficult it is to be certain of the unsullied purity of any ‘truth’ or ‘fact’. That it is extremely naïve to underestimate the power of entrenched belief or propaganda in shaping human thinking was also a hard lesson to learn.

Not that I think my youthful reasoning was flawed in theory; only, I seem not to have fully taken into account the stubborn nature of what Isaiah Berlin called ‘the crooked timber of humanity’. As for education: yes, of course it helps. But there are two caveats. First, it has to be the right kind of education, the kind that develops a curious, sceptical, and questioning mind. It would be a folly to assume such mental qualities are automatically acquired as by-products of literacy or formal schooling (especially of the sort available to most Pakistanis). Second, let us not pretend that education alone (even a good quality one) is sufficient to overcome all the other complex factors that go into shaping human character.

I can think of three quotes that have helped me slowly over time to view this whole matter a little more realistically. Einstein said that commonsense is those set of prejudices we acquire before the age of 18. The American writer Sinclair Lewis tells us it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. And, finally, this is what the noted physicist Max Planck had to say: “A new scientific truth does not, in general, prevail because its opponents declare themselves to be persuaded or convinced; it prevails because its opponents gradually die out and the new generation is made familiar with the truth from the start.” Planck was, of course, referring to the then new and revolutionary Quantum Theory that, for all the solid experimental evidence in its favour, found acceptance from the scientific community difficult (even Einstein was a sceptic) because it was so counter-intuitive. Do you not think Planck’s observation has a more general application?

All these thoughts came to mind as I prepared to write a column concerning three news items aired recently on television that intrigued me. I will let you decide whether the long preamble is relevant to what I am about to say.

The first item relates to our semi-final defeat in the World Cup. I was heartened to see that the vast majority of our people and media, for all the disappointment, showed great maturity for once and accepted the result for what it was. It was clear we had our chances, but we blew them. And that happens in a game. Nevertheless, there was that odd voice (as usual) that thought the match was ‘fixed’, and that our team lost only because some of our players had been paid off by the bookies to ensure a loss. In particular, an anchor, on his ‘Prime Time’ programme, had an anonymous Bombay bookie confirm to him live that this was so, and he seemed to accept what was being said unhesitatingly at face value.

Watching the programme it was obvious that Mr anchor (and any viewer who bought the nonsense that was being aired) did not have the faintest idea of how the betting industry works. Here was a good example of if you start by being convinced that something is the case then what you do is to present ‘evidence’ that that indeed is the case, never mind if the ‘evidence’ belies simple commonsense.

For, any person even vaguely familiar with how betting works, knows that bookmakers stand to profit when the favourite loses, and stand to lose when the favourite wins. That is why, in a horse race, it is worth their while to pay off the jockey of the favourite to pull the horse. In the semi-final in question, India were the heavy betting favourite. It would make sense for the bookies to pay off a few Indian cricketers to throw the match, but what sense does it make for them to bribe Pakistani cricketers?

What would make sense is for a ‘betting syndicate’ that had placed a heavy bet with the bookies on India winning, to bribe Pakistani players to ensure a favourable outcome. I say a betting syndicate, simply because of the amount of money involved. Allegedly, the pay-off to each bribed player was of the order of a million dollars or more (the inducement needed to be substantial given that the prize money for the winners of the Cup was $3.25 million, national honour was involved, and the Pakistani team stood to make a fortune back home from a grateful nation, had it won). Given the investment in the pay-offs and the short odds on offer on India, one would have to lay a huge bet on India (of the order of many millions) to come out ahead. Bookies, even institutional ones, are loath to accept such huge bets for many reasons. Therefore, the only possibility (and also to avoid suspicion) is many dozens of separate big (but not huge) bets by syndicate members. But it was not this possibility that was put forward or discussed on the programme. So what conclusions should I draw?

The second news item was the two attempts on the life of Maulana Fazlur Rehman. There was that usual nonsense from his supporters of this being another American plot. Was it? More likely, methinks it was a case of “...that we but teach. Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return. To plague the inventor.”

Finally, there is the case of this alleged banning by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) of Geo Super and Aag channels. As dog does not eat dog, the rest of the media has chosen to remain silent on this issue while Geo has gone to town with its version of the story. The result is obvious. A gullible public, unprepared to take a critical look at the evidence, has overwhelmingly bought the Geo line (the only one available on the media). But what does a little patient digging into the facts of the case tell me?

My tentative conclusion (and I am prepared to be proved wrong) is that Geo are being more than a little disingenuous in their stance (if not outright dishonest) that their channels have been “banned by the government”. For a start, I have not seen any official notification to this effect produced by Geo to back up their claim. Secondly, why do they not go to court if aggrieved (as they were quick to do when their rights to air the World Cup were under threat), instead of going to the Awami Adaalat (people’s court) (a tell-tale sign that their legal case is weak, if non-existent)?

PEMRA have clearly said they have not banned the two channels, and they remain free to air their transmissions, provided they abide by the terms of their licence. Apparently, Geo, unwilling or unable to comply with PEMRA rules, have taken the decision to stop transmissions themselves for their own reasons (good or bad), and cry ‘foul’ as part of their campaign against the present government.

Was the preamble relevant in context?

The writer is a businessman. A selection of his columns is now available in book form. Visit

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